E Ink

Bigger batteries are not the answer to the portability problem. But additional colour-free displays may be.

In a recent article my colleague Martyn Casserley argues that specifications no longer matter. He suggests that personal computing devices are as fast as they need to be. I tend to agree: for me the most important battle ground to be fought out by smartphones, tablets and laptops is that of battery life.

After all, there is more computational power in my smartphone than there was in the PC I bought five years ago. It does everything I need. Unfortunately, it doesn't do it for too long when I’m away from the mains.

It's a problem that we all accept, but we shouldn’t. Why can't my laptop last all day?

To date the solution has been to build bigger batteries. But portability is as much about being small, thin and light as it is about working for a while on the go. When smartphones measure 7mm in thickness, there's not much room for a big battery.

How to improve smartphone battery life

There are other ways to tackle the issue. Intel's Haswell processors are marketed not for additional power, but for the fact they can make your laptop run for seven hours. Intel has made improvements as much by reducing the load software places on hardware as by improving the silicon. Judiciously and quickly shutting down processes that don't need to run so that less power is required can get you a long way.

But perhaps not all the way to a laptop that can run all week. Yet there are popular portable gadgets with battery life measured in weeks. E-readers.

Recently I met with E Ink, makers of displays in most e-readers including the Amazon Kindle. They were keen to promote E Ink for a range of other devices including - yes - smartphones and laptops. Think about it: the full HD, retina-busting screens we take for granted are power sinks. How many of the things you do require such a display? Web browsing, watching movies, looking at photos: yes. Replying to emails, editing documents, making calls: no.

Recently we've seen a few dual-screen devices, and the odd case that bundles in an E Ink display to otherwise full-colour and resolution gadgets. It is an idea worth exploring. If you could check email, texts, Twitter and Facebook without it, wouldn’t you mostly leave the screen dormant? Imagine how much battery life you’d save.
Or consider smartwatches with E Ink displays. If you could access data from your phone on a smartwatch that drew virtually no power, you would.

Battery life is the next big battle ground for portable computers. And E Ink displays may have a big part to play in the route to victory. (See also: best eReaders for every budget.)